Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Few Contentious Thoughts about Updike (occasioned by a reading of COUPLES)

How to read Updike: pay close attention to the descriptive and expository passages (and the sex scenes, needless to say) and skim everything else. Updike's novels really come alive only when his characters look at things, ruminate or fuck; those are the moments when the creaky gears of his novelistic machinery shift into high and he takes off as a stylist. The rest of the time, Mr. U is content to cruise along in banality. Banal people saying banal things in banal places--such is the America Updike inexplicably claims to love.

My theory, for what it's worth, is that Updike is too Christian (which in American English usually means 'too conformist') to allow himself to seriously doubt any received opinion. It's as though sometime in his youth he read Flaubert's Dictionnaire des idees recues and took it as his textbook--or his Bible. The most obviously missing element in Updike's fiction is serious radical doubt, intellectually rigorous scepticism of the sort that makes Modernism modern. (And radical doubt is not the exclusive domain of atheists, as witness Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (especially the 'terrible sonnets'); Thomas Stearns Eliot, COE; and Flannery O'Connor, BMC (bloody-minded Catholic). As far as that goes, witness Mr. Western Mind himself, Rene Descartes, doubting himself into a pretzel and begging God to unbend him.) In fact, with only a few exceptions (all theological), intellectual rigor of any kind is AWOL from Updike's oeuvre. Couples is not "an intellectual Peyton Place" (as one early reviewer called it) because there's nothing intellectual about the novel. Rather, it's an intellectually glib Peyton Place. Glibness is Updike's most irritating quality, masquerading (often successfully) as magisterial effortlessness. All in all, I consider him a highly-talented fraud (which is not necessarily a bad thing for an artist to be; it's greatly preferable to being a minimally talented one), a pasty pasticheur, a jejune intellectual impostor, and perhaps our foremost striving bourgeois gentrifier of Modernism. He is a writer whose depths are always disappointingly shallow. Reading him is like leaping into a swimming pool and feeling your butt slam against the bottom while your head is still in the air. Despite all that, he remains a highly talented prose artist, a great describer who unfortunately didn't build novels very well. (A comparison with William H. Gass is begging to be born here.) Often his style is like elaborate art nouveau ornamentation affixed to a clapboard shack, but the ornament is no less lovely for that.

Despite all of this--and perversely because of some of it--I will keep returning to Updike's novels for the rest of my life. He is nowhere near being an artist of Proustian talent or Joycean inventiveness or Nabokovian wit or Pynchonian daring, but he does sometimes unfurl sentences that give a lovely light.

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